Watching Barry Sanders was akin to a religious experience for decades of Detroit Lions fans, and quite possibly everyone’s best memory of the running back came in 1997 when the runner went over 2,000 yards for the season.
Interestingly, however, there was a time during that same year where many thought Sanders might be finished as a serious running threat. Recently, Sanders spoke about his 1997 season in an interview, and explained that he got off to a very slow start running the ball, so much so that folks began to wonder if his best days were behind him.
“It was my ninth season, started off very slow. Only had 50 something yards the first 2 games of that year,” Sanders says in the clip of 1997. “A lot of people were questioning whether I had lost a step or if I could still get it done. Then we proceeded to run off 100 yard game after 100 yard game. I remember offensive linemen going to the offensive coordinator going ‘no matter what happens this season, let’s continue to run the ball. Let’s not get away from it.'”
They continued to run it and with great results. For Lions fans, the highlight of that year was the Jets game on the final day of the season, and Sanders revealed in the interview that he had to have a mid-game change of plans in order to finish his season strong.
“Going up against the New York Jets coached by Bill Parcells, defensive coordinator for that team was Bill Belichick. So we knew we were going to be in stingy defense. At that time I needed 130 something yards to get to 2,000 yards. We needed that win to get into the playoffs,” Sanders remembered. “They pretty much shut us down first half, I only had 20 something yards at halftime. I remember at halftime, I believe it was the offensive coordinator or my running back coach just said ‘look, just remember try to keep it play side when you run, they know you like to cut it back.’ Sure enough we go out in the second half and the running game starts to click. I get the 130 yards needed and we were also able to win the game to propel us into the playoffs.”
That moment as well as that game remain a huge feather in the cap for the Lions in history. Detroit fans haven’t seen a player run the ball like Sanders did since, and while they haven’t tasted playoff success either, the game remains as close to that type of moment as they have had in decades.
Hearing Sanders admit many thought he was finished early in that season certainly is a revelation considering how dominant he was at the time.
Barry Sanders Stats
To see Sanders run the ball for Lions fans through the years was to believe given what he was able to do with the team on the field. Sanders routinely had the quickness and deft ability to break plenty of ankles on the football field and remains one of the greatest highlights in the game fans love watching even years after his retirement. Athleticism is something that came naturally to Sanders, no matter whether he was on the grass or the hardwood, something that was revealed recently.
With the Lions, Sanders rushed for 15,269 yards and 99 touchdowns. He was routinely thought of as the best running back in the league, and would have shattered plenty of NFL rushing records had he decided to keep playing. Sanders, however, walked away from the game in 1999 on the eve of training camp, which stunned the Lions and all of their fans. The parties then went through a frustrating split for multiple years, based mostly upon the fact that the franchise made him pay back part of his contract amid retirement. It is a situation not unlike what is happening with Calvin Johnson currently.
Barry Sanders a Lions Legend Forever
Since, time has healed all wounds and Sanders has patched things up with the Lions and has become engaged in their alumni group. He also makes several visits a year to games the team is playing in, and was recently named to Detroit’s All-Century team, which is a major feather in his cap given what he was able to do as a team leader and a dominating force in the franchise.
As a result of his early retirement, Sanders maintains his health and vitality and looks phenomenal. It’s not a stretch to say that he could possibly still grind out some tough yards in the league at this point in time.
Back in his best season ever, there was a time some thought Sanders was finished. Considering what he was able to do, shame on anyone who felt that way.